Sowers and Reapers: Briggs Community Garden

By: Sharmi Amin, Grace Chun, Alyssa Cleveland, Will Graham, Emma Herold

Briggs Avenue Community Garden was established in 2010 on a ¼ acre of land in Durham, NC. It is a dynamic community space which sports more than 50 plots, as well as a small orchard and an apiary. Despite its small size, the Garden is the grounds for an extensive project. Briggs Community Garden is dedicated to community beautification, education on gardening and nutrition, food donation, and community development. The success of the garden is the product of a robust network of educators, leaders, and enthusiastic community members. Cheralyn S. Berry, the spirited and warm-hearted director, is a pillar of the institution. She carries the weight of the Garden’s functional responsibilities, such as managing finances, organizing educational initiatives at North Carolina Cooperative Extension, and leading new projects such as constructing a greenhouse. Second, Master Gardeners, gardening-educators certified after a 40-hour course and exam through NC State, contribute crucial volunteer hours and resource information to participants. Lastly, through the Briggs Community Garden, hundreds of volunteers from the Durham Community and Durham Technical Community College come together to create fresh produce and receive enduring lessons on food systems and nutrition and food assistance. These strong personal connections are responsible for creating the welcoming atmosphere at Briggs and enacting social change within the community. As research progressed, the team narrowed their focus to three core themes: education, ethics and access, and identity.

Firstly, Briggs Community garden has a sweeping educational impact, providing instruction on nutrition, sustainable gardening, and programs for people across all demographics. Second, given its situation in a food-desert, the garden plays a crucial role by enabling members to grow fresh produce and by increasing the wider community’s access to produce. At the early stages of the project, interview questions focused on contextualizing the projects which Briggs Community Garden conducts. However, while interacting with the gardeners, the research team realized that Briggs was more than a space for people to grow plants as a hobby. From evolving our focus from the place to the people, we have come to understand how Briggs attracts a diverse community of people and fulfills their hobbies, passions, and identities.

Education and Outreach

Educational programs are one of the most significant aspects of Briggs impact on the community. Through interviews with Cheralyn and discussions with the Master Gardeners, it became clear that community education is a core part of their mission. Briggs prioritizes the agency and empowerment of the community, giving people the skills necessary to garden autonomously and improve their own situation. Briggs’ educational initiatives work towards long-lasting improvements in food insecurity.

Within Briggs, the Master Gardeners are crucial sources of information. These gardeners are certified by a program run through NC State which includes a 40-hour training program, an exam, and a 40-hour internship. They must contribute 20 hours of volunteer time every year, as well as 12 hours of furthering their personal horticulture education. They act as a public resource, and provide services ranging from manning a horticulture hotline to public speaking events at schools and local gardens. They provide expertise where necessary to less experienced gardeners and volunteers, emphasizing sustainable gardening lessons for youth. Durham Tech students, which have been volunteering at Briggs since its inception, are an important facet of the Garden community. Jess Dormady, the volunteer coordinator from Durham Tech, explains that Briggs is one of their most popular volunteer sites, through which their students learn a wide range of horticulture techniques, and have the opportunity to participate in unique activities like beekeeping. Many students are exposed to food production for the first time. The garden benefits from their labor while fulfilling its education goal.

Cheralyn also employs her culinary background in educational efforts at the North Carolina Cooperative Extension. The extension hosts educational classes on cooking and nutrition for kids, adults and families alike, and some of the ingredients come from Briggs. For example, “Mindful Meals, Mindful Moms” is a class for mothers and children to improving their cooking and nutrition together. In our interview with Cheralyn, she explained that these classes make healthy eating more accessible because they provide the skills necessary for low income families to cook on a low budget, with little equipment, and with little time.

Ethics and Access

Briggs demonstrates that a community garden can impact the surrounding community by creating greater equity in the food system. One of the reasons Briggs is such a popular volunteer site for Durham Tech students, Jess Dormady feels, is that they regularly receive produce in return through their “Harvest Pantry,” a food pantry for students and employees. In this way, Briggs works towards improving food access within a food desert.

The food pantry program at Durham Tech provides immediate support to its students and employees. Non-perishables are provided by Durham Tech, and Briggs supplements their pantry supply with fresh produce, a crucial contribution, as the college is also located in a food desert. The pantry received thousands of pounds from Briggs. In 2017-2018 Briggs contribution to the food pantry was about half of their year’s supply.

Food insecurity is a widespread issue for the students for both financial and geographical reasons. According to a Briggs member and ex-employee of Durham Tech, about 80 students showed up the first time they opened the pantry. One time, she saw a student eating a dry ramen noodle packet, and she reflected on the level of hunger the student must have been experiencing to do so. As many students are low-income, there is certainly a financial barrier to obtaining healthy food. However, it is also an issue of physical access. According to Dormady, who is also “the food pantry lady,” she says, the Family Dollar that recently opened across the street, is the only store with basic necessities such as milk nearby. Dormady says she feels that the stigma of student hunger is better at Durham Tech than in most places though. With the stress and work necessary to succeed in undergraduate school, not having proper nourishment is a barrier that could sabotage a student’s ability to learn. Therefore, the impact of the contribution to the food pantry’s transcends student health to student success.

Identities and Values

To understand the intersection of environmental justice and Briggs Garden, the research team investigated how identity plays a role in people’s participation at Biggs. At the inception of the project, the team centered the interview questions around understanding the projects and programs in which the Briggs Community Garden participates. Through learning more about the gardeners themselves, the Briggs team quickly realized that this community garden was more than just a space for people to grow plants as a hobby, but is a site for a range of people who need a niche to fulfill their hobbies, passions, and identities.

One common thread of why these people garden was because it was passed down as an intergenerational activity. Linton Evans was born and raised on a farm in Virginia; Cheralyn said of him, “he has the greenest thumb I’ve ever seen.” Evans grew eggplants not for himself (he dislikes the taste), but for his late father who loved eating them. Similarly, Chani, a younger woman who grows the hottest peppers in the world, the Carolina Reaper, grows them as a tradition passed down from her father. There were many gardeners who referenced past generations as their inspirations for wanting to continue the practice; one woman simply stated that she grows things because “it’s in [her] DNA.”

The conversations with the gardeners allowed the students to understand the various ways people appreciate and incorporate habits or values that stem from gardening into their everyday lives. One conversation with a Master Gardener, shed light on the idea that gardening not only touches on a person’s past and current identity, but plays a role in shaping some of the values that they incorporate into their everyday lives. Charles, a Master Gardener who helped found the Briggs Community Garden, stated “You learn to live with failure through a garden; you take what you can get and have to figure out how to brush off what you couldn’t…it also teaches people how to get along. Briggs wouldn’t work without trust and cooperation.” He explained how this sense of internal collaboration and perseverance can be passed between people to have an extremely positive effect on a community.

Climate Change

Part of the Humanities Action Lab research goal was to investigate the role gardens and garden clubs play against climate change. It is well documented that understanding the science of climate change is not enough to drive people to action. On the other hand, anecdotes and personal accounts are motivational. The research team investigated the impact climate change has had on Briggs Garden, the individuals there, and if Briggs could be an impactful institution in the fight against climate change. Overall, it is unclear if climate change is having a distinct impact on the health of the Garden. A few interviewees mentioned that some of their plants had been damaged by excessive heat, but it’s unclear if the heat wave was a product of climate change, or just normal fluctuation in weather. Similarly, many of the interviewees mentioned that it seemed to them that there has been generally warmer weather in Durham, but no one felt confident enough to explicitly link the changes to a warming climate. These results intimate that Briggs Garden is not a source for moving anecdotes on climate change. However, the Garden as an institution can play a role in fighting climate change. Firstly, it already has a strong educational pedigree, which can be used to educate the members on the future impacts of climate change. Secondly, the Garden is a piece of a sustainable food system. Its practices, unlike most food production systems, have a low carbon footprint. Consuming food from Briggs garden has a far smaller impact than consuming food from industrial systems. Finally, the Garden is well prepared to take direct action against climate change if a critical mass of members and leadership wanted to. Briggs Garden likely has the social network to lead events like tree-planting for carbon storage and other undertakings. Although Briggs Garden does not have any explicit plans to fight climate change, the research team believes community gardens in general could be institutions which lead communities to disrupt climate change.

Conclusion

Community gardens do and can continue to play a significant role in alleviating social disparities. The questions of who owned land, who had access to what land, and why certain groups had access to certain areas shed light on some of the environmental rights issues that Durham has faced throughout the history of the city. Briggs serves as a leveling field in this regard; it creates an equally shared space where no financial or social factor determines whether or not one person’s plot will thrive over another’s. Socioeconomic, educational, or ethnic differences fall away as everyone operates under the identity of “gardener.” Success depends on the group effort, whether this is weeding, caring for another’s plot when necessary, or sharing knowledge.

Not only is Briggs Community Garden an inclusive and productive space in a food-desert, but it has a wide-reaching impact on the Durham community. The education initiatives such as its “Mindful Meals, Mindful Moms” program benefit even non-gardeners in a positive and long-lasting manner. The education programs that are run through Briggs teach vital lessons on gardening and nutrition, which are intensely valuable in an area that is deprived of affordable, healthy food. Brigg, in partnership with its resident Master Gardeners, is taking concrete steps to better the lives of individuals in Durham, ultimately leading the community to a healthier, sustainable future. Briggs Garden has a profound energy to it. It is a warm, open space, filled with friendly faces. People of all ages, races, and backgrounds come together and work communally.